August 10, 2011

Appel on Wine: Rieslings, American style

By JOE APPEL

As the summer began, I wrote about the nationwide Summer of Riesling campaign. Now in the heart of the season, it's time to revisit Riesling through a different lens.

The spiritual home of Riesling is the Germany/Austria/Alsace nexus. Nonetheless, many U.S. winemakers have taken the appropriate time and attitude necessary to produce excellent Riesling and other cool-climate Germanic varietals, and it's their efforts I want to focus on today.

Collapsing into one newspaper column a mishmash of grapes just because historically they've been grown in a loosely concentrated geographic area is kind of a cheat. But these grapes fit a broad, general profile in most American wine buyers' minds (intensely aromatic, sometimes sweet, a little strange), and I'm going to play along.

Fact is, wines like these don't take well to the usual constraining types of classifications: dry, fruity, sweet, lemony, etc. Appropriately for the subject of American wines, these are like Walt Whitman's description of himself (and, implicitly, his country): they are "vast, and contain multitudes."

It's not that each lacks dry, fruity, sweet and lemony aspects; it's that the story goes on a long way from there, and the soul of the matter lies elsewhere.

These wines embrace and invite adventure. With the possible exception of the Gruner Veltliner (which is exciting but in a more familiar fashion), they present flavors and personalities that are simply unavailable from other grapes. That's rare, and if you're the type for whom such a prospect alone isn't exhilarating, I'm not the wine writer for you.

Each wine listed here comes from a single varietal, because for grapes that inherently contain this much delicacy and nuance, tasting a blend is not as enlightening until you've listened for some time to what each, alone, has to say.

And each is very true to varietal: the Rieslings taste like Riesling, the Muller-Thurgau tastes like Muller-Thurgau. The variables that remain interesting are the grapes' soil and the winemakers' orientation; the wines are true to varietal but don't taste exactly like what you'd expect from, say, a Kamptal Gruner Veltliner or a Riquewihr Gewurztraminer.

But nor do they taste vastly different, because these winemakers are honest and respect the homes of the grapes. You say, "Ah, this is Gewurztraminer, but ..." The "but" is that indescribable but palpable sense that this wine is from a place, and was brought into being by a human being – a very smart, very skilled, very humble human being at that.

Illahe Estate Gruner Veltliner 2010, Willamette Valley, Oregon, $14 (Devenish): A true-blue Gruner, Austria's best-known grape, from an exceedingly small-production, handmade-everything Oregon winemaker. I love its balance of fragility and drive, its calm tension, its electricity. An oily texture and saline profile, paired with a green-bean salad freshness, make this a terrific partner for all sorts of salads and herb-heavy summer foods.

Eroica Riesling 2009, Columbia Valley, Washington, $19 (Nappi): This product of a partnership between Washington's Chateau Ste. Michelle and the Mosel's Dr. Loosen helped start the quality-Riesling revolution in the Pacific Northwest. It prominently displays what I look for in Riesling, an embracing of apparent opposites: full in the mouth yet lithe and clean-finishing; compact dried-apricot fructose in tandem with a refreshing smack of lime; floral aromas with kerosene-tinged zip. Like any good Riesling, as you drink it you're convinced you never need to taste any other sort of wine.

Milbrandt Traditions Riesling 2009, Columbia Valley, Washington, $12 (SoPo): A single-vineyard Riesling (the same transitioning-to-organic vineyard as the better-known Kung Fu Girl Riesling), from a winery that also sells grapes to Chateau Ste. Michelle. Exceptionally distinctive for the price, this has an almost autumnal, amber-light quality, with a lovely light-honey note, piercing acidity and a full nut-meal texture.

Anne Amie "Cuvee A" Muller-Thurgau 2010, Yamhill-Carlton, Oregon, $15 (Crush): The single-vineyard, 30-plus-year-old vines must be responsible for how thrillingly alive it is from beginning to end. Although the flowers and stone fruit are prominent on the nose, on the palate it's very dry, spicy, clean and focused. The finish is what I can only describe as Sprite-y: that lemon-lime smack. Restaurants not pouring this by the glass are out of their collective minds.

Claiborne & Churchill Dry Gewurztraminer 2008, San Luis Obispo, California, $15 (Pine State): Respectful of Alsace but no mimic, this is stunning. Gewurz often gets relegated to "spicy food only" status (which is fine, anyway), but this is taut enough to be remarkably flexible with all sorts of food: grilled sausages, caramelized onions, chutney, a potato salad with green olives and cornichons, a salad with nuts and blue cheese, curries. The aromatics "go to 11," in Nigel Tufnel's indomitable phrase, all white flowers and then green olives. After the spicy, lychee-and-roses midpalate, there's a long, tantalizing but very clean, dry finish.

 

Joe Appel works at Rosemont Market. His blog, soulofwine.com, continues the conversation, and he can be reached at: soulofwine.appel@gmail.com.

 

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